Books have power.  Many governments fear certain books, especially those about political, social and economic philosophy; but many governments are also afraid of imaginative literature and poetry, even though some of those novels, stories and poems, may not be overtly political at all.  Religions are often terrorized by the power of books; mostly they dread fiction and poetry that express metaphysical, sexual or physical freedom from dogma or cant.  Even books that do not frighten or terrify governments or religions often have power over individuals in the sense that readers tear themselves away from everyday life (even when reading about everyday life!) in order to cooperate with the writer in seeking salvation from numbing routine and the demands of society.  Many academics have tried to analyze this kind of power, some not very successfully.


During the hey-day of “self-improvement” (following Dale Carnegie), Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a bestseller, reprinted many times, called “How to Read a Book”, a lengthy piece of didactic advice aimed at the crowd who wanted to “get better every day in every way.”  Adler and Van Doren were famous professors of English. Their doctrine was that reading aided the individual to understand oneself and the world by deepening the reader’s awareness of the “enduring” truths of human life.  They argued that the best and most difficult books, when tackled seriously, improved a person’s reading technique, which then allowed the reader to tackle harder and harder works, so that the reader could become wiser.  Adler and Van Doren wrote that, “There are some human problems, after all, that have no solution.  These are matters about which you cannot think too much or too well.  The greatest books can help you think better about them, because they were written by men and women who thought better than other people about them.”  Reading came in their view to resemble weight lifting.


How to Read a Book suggests that there is a Pyramid of Books, the base of which consists of the several millions of items that don’t make demands enough to improve one’s reading skill (one of the goals of the reading life…).  Less that one in a hundred books can teach you how to read and how to live.  And only a hundred (or less!) are books that “cannot be exhausted by even the very best reading you can manage.”  This hypothesis is the “Great Book” hypothesis, maintained for many years by academics that taught the Western Canon along the lines of Adler and Van Doren.


Given their argument and their premise that the reading life is about self-improvement and “understanding” problems, it is no surprise that Adler and Van Doren argue that the mind is a muscle that will atrophy without hard exercise.  The list of Great books (and How to Read a Book has an appendix listing those books) therefore constitutes an exercise machine for the mind, a set of free weights.


It’s a hypothesis for which there is no empirical evidence whatsoever.  Yes, of course, the Great Books are often beautiful and contain deeply moving truths.  But the rest of the argument is a load of hooey.